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New York Story


Published February 20, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

The sky was clear as I sped north on I-89 towards Swanton. I was driving a small cargo van, loaded with 33 bags of lost — and found — luggage bound for North Bangor, New York.

The airline employee who gave me the delivery address suggested I take the Plattsburgh ferry, and then the “hypotenuse of the triangle directly into Malone.” I replied that I had skipped geometry class to smoke pot the day they taught the hypotenuse, so my plan was to head to Rouses Point and then straight across Route 11, thank you very much.

The bags shifted behind me at every bump in the road, creating a slight rustling sound. With that many pieces, I speculated, they must belong to a tour group. Whatever the circumstances, I was grateful for the good fare on this slow Tuesday afternoon.

I exited at Swanton and headed west on 78 through East Alburg and the top of the Lake Champlain islands. This area is actually a peninsula jutting south from Quebec, but Vermonters have always considered it an extension of Grand Isle, and it has that lonesome island feel to it.

A few miles past Alburg, the Rouses Point bridge emerged in the distance. It’s a graceful silver arc, constructed a decade ago by a team of New York and Vermont workers. Each time I take it, the bridge seems to me overbuilt for the sparse interstate traffic it serves. Anyway, it’s beautiful, as bridges should be, wrought with the metaphor of connecting one place to another.

In Rouses Point I located Route 11 for the shot across the northernmost tier of New York State. I soon came upon the border town of Champlain, with its signs for duty-free shops and brick customs house. The Canadian border crossing was visible as the road crossed over I-87; the stretch is interlaced with turn-offs leading to rambling warehouses and parking lots dotted with tractor-trailers.

The roadside here is cluttered with billboards and gaudy signs, compromising the natural landscape. After a few miles I found myself getting angry, and I realized that I feel like an alien in upstate New York. In Vermont, I’ve always felt connected to the land and its people. Not just because of the state’s anti-billboard regulation, but because the residents care enough about the environment to make such rules. Somehow, pondering this sense of belonging lifted my mood again; I stopped resenting New York be-cause it isn’t Vermont and began to enjoy the journey.

The next town was Mooers, and you have to appreciate the whimsy of that name in this former farming country. Like all the communities in this economically strapped region, this one’s seen better days. Many of the commercial buildings are boarded up, and the few still operating look bedraggled.

One bright and beckoning spot, however, is The Blue Note Kitchen. The letters on its sign waft up into smoke puffs that form musical notes. As I passed by, I noted a smaller sign in the window promoting the band playing on the weekend. For a moment I imagined returning on Friday night for the blue-plate special and some good tunes.

After another 30 miles I reached Malone, the last big town before Massena and Ogdensburg. And finally, on the outskirts of North Bangor, I came upon my delivery destination — a large stone house with a wrap-around porch. The driveway was spotted with ice, but the downward slope was not steep, so I backed in, cut the engine and got out. As I ascended the front steps, a bright-eyed woman opened the front door, exuding grandmotherly cheer.

“Are you here with our luggage?” she asked warmly. “We were expecting you a little later in the afternoon. My husband is out in the back working in the yard.”

“Well, the weather was unusually accommodating, so here I am. Do you run tour groups? This is a lot of stuff.”

The lady burst out laughing. “My goodness, no. It was a family trip to Disney World, and what with our five children, their spouses and the grandchildren — well, there’s a lot.”

I unloaded the bags and lined them up on the front porch, according to her instructions. I got back in the van to leave, but the back wheels just spun uselessly on the inclined driveway. I had just begun cursing when I noticed an older gentleman on a Sno-Cat with a small plow chugging around the house. He looked like a slimmed-down Santa Claus, complete with fluffy white beard and twinkling eyes.

“Back further down,” he called out, “and let me scrape the driveway for you.” He even sounded jolly.

“Oh, great!” I said. “You’re a lifesaver.”

I backed down to where the driveway leveled out, and the man passed back and forth a few times with his junior plow. I attempted the driveway again. As soon as I hit the incline, though, the wheels began to spin.

My would-be savior appeared undaunted. He maneuvered up to my window and gave me a broad smile. “Well, that van of yours is just about fuckin’ useless, wouldn’t you say?” he asked.

I was floored. This is one salty Santa, I thought.

“Uh, yeah, it’s pretty bad,” I stammered. “But it is a rental van,” I added, trying to disassociate myself from the object of his derision.

“Back her up some more and really gun it,” he advised with a chuckle. “I’ll stand up by the road and give you the clear sign.”

“Roger,” I replied, and backed up another 10 feet. The guy stepped out of the Sno-Cat and walked up to where his driveway met Route 11. Glancing in both directions and still smiling, he flashed me the old “A-OK.”

The third time was the charm. I shot out of the driveway and back onto the road. I turned to see the couple waving good-bye and gave them a thumbs-up. Maybe New York’s not all that bad, I thought to myself as I headed home.